Royal Opera House Heritage Series – Don Carlo

0 of 5 stars

Don Carlo [Opera in five acts; sung in Italian]

Filippo II – Boris Christoff
Don Carlo – Jon Vickers
Rodrigo – Tito Gobbi
Il Grand Inquisitore – Michael Langdon
Un frate – Joseph Rouleau
Elisabetta di Valois – Gré Brouwenstijn
La Principessa Eboli – Fedora Barbieri
Tebaldo – Jeannette Sinclair
Una voce dal cielo – Ava June
La Contessa d’Aremburg – Margaret Lensky
Il Conte di Lerma – Edgar Evans
Un arlado reale – Robert Allman

The Covent Garden Opera Chorus

The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini

Luchino Visconti – Producer, Scenery & Costumes

Recorded on 12 May 1958 in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

CD 3 includes Lord Harewood in conversation with Roger Beardsley

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: February 2007
ROHS003 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 22 minutes [including the 23-minute conversation]

Opera productions don’t come much more iconic than this: a long-neglected opera given for the first time at Covent Garden in its five-act version; a stellar cast with a virtual unknown in Jon Vickers, an exotic and – for then – sometimes controversial producer; and a great conductor. It was one of those nights at the opera that have those who were there reminiscing starry-eyed into their brandy-glasses or to anyone who will listen about its revelatory power and conviction.

The trouble with memory, particularly musical memory, is that it often plays false. I have to say that, as someone too young to have been there, this performance seems not to be all it has been cracked up to be.

The positives are Vickers and Boris Christoff. In his opening recitative, with its difficult line, Vickers brings elegance and he pays attention to the composer’s dynamic markings; here he is surpassed only by the greatest of all Verdi tenors, Carlo Bergonzi. And he makes the somewhat brain-dead Carlo (this rather than the now standard ‘Carlos’) into a believable character: the voice is fresh and virile and used with considerable subtlety – despite some less than perfect intonation here and there.

Christoff was, with Nicolai Ghiaurov, the greatest of post-war Filippos. The voice is magnificent. In the great duet with Rodrigo he is commanding yet unsure and questioning. In Filippo’s sublime Act Three aria every emotion is conveyed; in his final utterances there is a sense of suffocating, profound weariness, aching nostalgia and despair. As is often the case in the big confrontation between Philip and the monstrous Grand Inquisitor, the latter is underpowered. Michael Langdon was a fine singer, but he lacks the weight and thuggish gravitas needed. Here I always go back to Ghiaurov with Talvela as the evil churchman (from Vienna in 1970, Myto and various other labels, with Horst Stein conducting). To listen to two such towering voices vie for dramatic supremacy is hair-raising and despite Giulini’s superior conducting his singers don’t scale such heights.

The third member of the male triumvirate, Tito Gobbi, is not entirely satisfactory. There is tremendous face to the voice; like Callas he was a consummate singer-actor and he invests every word of his encounter with Filippo with conviction and a whole range of vocal inflections that bring the music vividly to life. In the ‘auto de fe’ scene, his intervention when he disarms Carlo has great authority. Yet the voice and technique are not Verdian. In the death scene, ‘Per me giunto’ is suave but lacks weight and there is no trill, while ‘O Carlo ascolta’ comes perilously close to sounding like Neapolitan song or verismo.

Both female leads are below par. Brouwenstijn was only 44 at the time, but she sounds very matronly and in the opening duet the high notes are shrill and off-key. On too many occasions she takes notes from below. This is a pity, because her characterisation is often very fine. But this is not enough to mask the tonal and technical problems. And Fedora Barbieri is no Eboli. Her opening Moorish aria is ungainly and often flat and ‘O don fatale’ is simply beyond her. There are two B naturals, which she can get nowhere near, and nowhere does she rise above A. To compare her with Shirley Verrett on both the Stein and studio Giulini is unfair, but Verrett simply blazes with all the right notes and, in Vienna, brings the house down.

Of the chorus little good can be said: ensemble is precarious and the men in particular are seriously flat. The orchestra is rather better; there are some superb woodwind solos and the string tone is well nourished. Being live, occasional ensemble lapses and wrong notes are inevitable, and this sounds like a band approaching international class.

Carlo Maria Giulini is in superb form. As ever in the opera house he favours tempos that are never extreme and there is an enormous sense of span and concentration. Different sections are seamlessly integrated and the introduction to the final act is profoundly moving, with an innate understanding of Verdian phrasing. The only exception is the short first act. Here the tempos are slightly too lethargic and there isn’t sufficient rhythmic élan and variety.

Aurally things are less than ideal; there is pitch instability and distortion at the start of the first act. I checked the sound against a Paragon LP transfer just to make sure that some of the cast’s intonation problems weren’t caused by the current transfer. I found that these ‘pirate’ LPs had better pitch control than these ‘official’ CDs, but, yes, the singers are still off-key, although the compact discs (beautifully presented with a booklet including text, translations and photographs) do have greater presence, definition and less background noise.

Despite misgivings about some aspects of the performance this is still a ‘must have’ set, capturing as it does a seminal production and a piece of operatic history.

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